1. At the close of my last lecture I pointed to what seemed to me a highly significant parallel between on the one hand the religious view of the ultimate reality it calls ‘God’ and on the other hand the philosophical view of ultimate reality which followed from the metaphysical argument we had just at some length deployed. For both the ultimate reality transcends all possible conception—is ‘supra-rational’. But for neither does this entail sheer blank ignorance of its nature. For the religious consciousness we saw earlier there is an affinity between its object the mysterium tremendum et fascinans and certain ‘rational’ qualities which justifies the symbolic representation of its object in terms of power and value in their highest conceivable manifestations.1 For the intellectual consciousness we argued in the last lecture there is an affinity between that perfect unity in difference which must characterise reality (if reality is to satisfy the criterion of non-contradiction) and the most comprehensive and coherent but still in principle imperfect unities actually attainable under the conditions of finite experience.
Part Two (Second Course): On Godhood
Lecture XX: The Objective Validity of Religion (III)
Of the former the ‘religious’ affinity we have already in past lectures said perhaps more than enough. But I may be permitted to remind you in just a sentence or two of the justification for asserting the ‘intellectual’ affinity. The crucial point is that it is in the process of seeking to attain that perfect unity which its ideal of non-contradiction implies that the intellect takes and must take the path of advance that leads to the increasingly comprehensive and coherent but still in principle imperfect unities of relational systems. The mind's acceptance of this affinity is spontaneous and it cannot in the nature of the case be justified in terms of any conceptually apprehended identity between the perfect and the imperfect unities. But I suggest that it is no more possible for a man in the operations of his intellectual experience to disbelieve in this affinity than it is possible for him in the operations of his religious experience to disbelieve in the affinity between the Divine mysterium tremendum et fascinans and the ‘rational’ qualities of power and value in their highest conceivable manifestations.
2. Now as we have so far developed it the philosophical corroboration of religion relates to no more than the most general picture of the human situation; the picture of man separated by an intellectually impassable gulf from the ultimate reality yet at the same time rightly claiming that certain concepts are valid as symbolic representations of the ultimate reality. Our task in this concluding lecture is to consider how far philosophic corroboration (and it will be appreciated that we must inevitably with whatever appearance of immodesty mean thereby corroboration by our own philosophical views) is capable of extending to the more specific features of the theistic creed. Theism in general it will be recalled we took to be sufficiently defined as belief in one God an Eternal and Infinite Spirit Perfect in power wisdom and goodness who is the ultimate source of all that is who is the Moral Governor of the world and who is yet a Living Presence in the hearts of men. Supra-rational theism (with which we are now alone concerned) we distinguished from Rational Theism in virtue of its insistence that the Divine nature transcends all possible human conception and that while the qualities Rational Theism ascribes to God are truly ascribable they are so only when understood in a symbolic significance. Our present question is just how far does the ultimate reality of philosophy viewed from the standpoint of the metaphysical argument of the last lecture correspond with the ultimate reality of religion viewed from the standpoint of supra-rational theism?
3. Let us make a beginning with the closely connected characteristics of unity infinity and eternity.
Granted certain premises which we sought to establish in the last lecture viz. that thought can accept nothing as real which involves self-contradiction and that any bare or ungrounded union of differents involves a self-contradiction the unity of the real follows almost as a corollary. For suppose reality not to be one but to consist in a plurality of independent reals A B C D etc. If we try to think reality in this wise we find we are uniting in our thought differences A B C D etc. which since ex hypothesi each is real independently of the others are without an even implied ground for their union. But that means that we are uniting the differences A B C D etc. simply—in and as a bare conjunction. And this is of the essence of contradiction. We cannot therefore without self-contradiction conceive reality as consisting of a plurality of independent reals. If the real is non-contradictory reality must be one.
Given the unity of reality its infinity is deducible with equal ease. Whatever is finite we may assume is limited by something other than itself. But if there is only one reality there is nothing other than itself that can limit it. It must be self-limited self-complete; not finite but infinite.
The eternity of the one infinite reality requires a deduction only slightly more complex. It follows from the conjunction of the two propositions (a) that reality cannot be in time and (b) that time must somehow be in it. As to (a) the one infinite reality cannot be conceived as something that is in time for then time would be a reality other than it; which is self-contradictory if the real is one and infinite. And as to (b) if time were not somehow in it time would again be something other than the one infinite reality and we should again have contradiction. But if reality is not itself in time and yet time is somehow in it it follows that reality transcends and yet includes time; and what transcends and yet includes time can I think fairly be called ‘eternal’.
The unity infinitude and eternity of ultimate reality then seem to follow simply enough from the metaphysical argument with which we have identified ourselves. What is not so simple a matter is the truth-status of the propositions which assert these characteristics of ultimate reality. Are they literally or only symbolically true? Neither position seems quite satisfactory. If we say they are literally true we seem to contradict our own contention that ultimate reality transcends all possible concepts. If we say that they are only symbolically true this is hard to reconcile with our having apparently deduced them as straight implications of the principle that reality is non-contradictory—which principle we are presumably accepting as not merely symbolically but literally true.
The solution of the dilemma I take to be as follows. The propositions which affirm respectively unity infinitude and eternity of the ultimately real have each a negative as well as a positive aspect. In each we intend to deny something of the real and we also intend to affirm of it some positive content. What I suggest is that these propositions are literally true in respect of what they deny but only symbolically true in respect of what they affirm. Let me illustrate. When we say that reality is a unity we deny that there is a plurality of reals; and there is nothing merely symbolic about this negation. But in so far as we are also in saying that reality is a unity assigning to it a positive character this positive character can have only symbolic significance. For no thinkable unity can be appropriate to the kind of unity that reality possesses. Unity as a positive concept exemplified in experience gets its meaning for us in contradistinction from plurality. It is always a unity of differences where the differences (or plurality) are something apart from and in contrast with the unity. The unity possessed by reality on the other hand is a unity not ‘over against’ its plurality but a unity which comprises all plurality within itself. It is a unity in difference where the differences have no being save as manifestations of the unity and the unity has no being save as self-manifested in the differences. Of such a unity we have no exemplars in actual or conceivable human experience. Unity as a positively meaningful concept then we cannot literally ascribe to reality. At the same time if our principle be accepted of the necessary affinity between noumenal and phenomenal truth between the unity which thought seeks and the unities which in that seeking it can alone achieve we are entitled to regard the highest conceivable forms of unity as symbolic of the nature of the perfect unity of the real. Symbolically therefore though only symbolically it is legitimate to ascribe unity as a positive character to the real.
The religious counterpart of this unitary reality which comprehends all differences within itself is the one God who is the ultimate source of all that is—and who therefore somehow comprehends the whole plurality of being within Himself. As to the ‘how’ of this ultimate unity there will be no demurrer from the side of religion (in so far at any rate as it is represented by supra-rational theism) to the philosophic contention that in the end it remains for the human mind an impenetrable mystery.
Mutatis mutandis the same principle holds of the propositions that assert infinity and eternity respectively of the ultimately real. They have literal truth in respect of what they negate viz. limitation from without and duration in time. But in so far as positive content is concerned literal truth is out of the question. Of a being that is totally free from external limitation and is thus infinite or self-complete or again of a being whose mode of existence transcends and yet includes time we can frame no positive conceptions whatsoever. Positive conceptions are applicable only as symbols; as e.g. the ‘everlasting’ as the symbol of eternity. And once more for religion as represented by supra-rational theism (though surely it must be so also for any theism that directly faces the question?) there will be no demurrer to the proposition that to frame positive concepts literally applicable to the Infinite and the Eternal is a project totally beyond the reach of the human intelligence.
4. So far then it seems fair to say that our metaphysical standpoint confirms the position of supra-rational theism. Like the God of the latter the ultimate reality of metaphysics is a being that transcends all conception and yet can in a legitimate though qualified sense be characterised as one infinite and eternal.
And now what of the further characterisation of God as a Spirit perfect in goodness wisdom and power? Is corroboration from our philosophical standpoint possible here too? I think that it is—always bearing in mind that the religion we are concerned to corroborate claims no more than a symbolic significance for the ascription of these characters to God. But from this point onwards our arguments will have to assume somewhat more complex forms than have so far been necessary.
The argument for the symbolisation of the ultimate reality of metaphysics as spirit must be based I think on our doctrine of the affinity between noumenal and phenomenal truth between the unity which thought seeks and the unities which in that seeking it can alone achieve. In virtue of that affinity we claimed we are entitled to regard the highest conceivable forms of unity as symbolic of the perfect unity of the real. Now there is good ground for holding that it is in mind or spirit (there is no special need to distinguish between these in the present context) that the highest conceivable unity of differents is exemplified. Whether we look to the range and variety of the differences that can be included within its unity or to the intimacy in the manner of their union mind would seem to have no serious rival among the entities actually known to human experience. Perhaps this superiority alike in comprehensiveness and internal coherence will best be brought out if we institute a brief comparison of the unity characteristic of mind with the unity that seems closest to it in the scale of perfection viz. the unity of the organism.
That the unity of mind holds the advantage over the unity of organism in sheer range and variety of the items that can be embraced within it needs little demonstration. There is indeed in principle no assignable limit to the mind's comprehensiveness. There is nothing in the whole world of space and time that cannot in principle be incorporated in the form of ideas into the living texture of the mind and constitute differences within its unity. Now it is true that the organism also can and must if it is to survive absorb into its unity a great deal of material from its surroundings. But inasmuch as it is a purely physical unity even the largest and most complex organism can absorb at best but a minute fraction of the world that lies about it. If the unity of ultimate reality is a unity that comprehends all plurality there can hardly be any question that it is mind that of all entities known to us is best fitted to serve as its symbol.
It is in respect however not so much of comprehensiveness as of internal coherence of the intimacy of the relation between whole and parts that the unity of organism approaches nearest to the unity of mind in the scale of perfection. In the perfect unity that characterises the ultimate reality there must be no externality whatsoever of the differences to their unity. That is to say it must be such that the differences are nothing but manifestations of the unity and the unity nothing but its own self-manifestation in the differences. Now in the organism as in no other physical thing we can discern some sort of approximation to this ideal. There is a genuine sense in which the unity of the organism may be said to constitute its own differences. Everything that the organism receives from without and incorporates into its unity suffers ‘a sea-change’. It is acted upon by the organism and reconstituted in a form subservient to the life-process of the individual whole. Thus in the organism not merely is every part in the whole but the whole is in a real sense in every part.
When we turn to the mind however we find that what has just been said of the organism can now be said with still greater truth. Mind too is in a real sense constitutive of its own differences. Nothing can enter the mind simply from without but only as subjected to a transforming and integrating activity from within. And the mind is a still ‘closer corporation’ than the body still less impervious to the operation of purely external forces upon it. For while the organism adapts to its own nature whatever it accepts into its unity that acceptance may itself be compelled from without. There is after all such a thing as ‘forcible feeding’ of the animal body. But for the mind forcible feeding is strictly an impossibility. The degree of pressure brought to bear upon a mind to accept certain content may be very great indeed but in principle it is free to reject or to accept whatever is offered it. What confronts it in sensation for example it must no doubt think in a certain way which is partly determined by the nature of the sensory stimulus and partly by its own nature if it is to think it at all. But it need not think it at all. It can if it so desires passively ignore what is presented to it refuse to incorporate it as a new difference within its own unity. Hence it can be said with still more truth of the mind than of the organism that in Professor Reyburn's words ‘all that it is and has results from its own action.’2
In so far then as the unity of the ultimate reality of metaphysics is a unity in difference a unity of which the differences are its self-manifestations it would appear again that it is the unity of a mind that is by far our best symbol.
But it must never be forgotten only a symbol. The mind falls short not merely in degree but in principle of that perfect unity in difference that characterises the ultimate being. Thus in point of comprehensiveness I suggested that so far as mind is concerned there is no assignable limit to the determinations of space and time that can be incorporated within its unity. But the ultimate being if perfect unity in difference must somehow incorporate space and time themselves within its unity. And this even in principle mind cannot do. Again in point of internal coherence it is not enough for the ultimate being that like mind it should be a factor—even if you like the dominant factor—in constituting its own differences. It must be the sole and sufficient factor. The differences must spring wholly from its own nature. Otherwise it would be conditioned by something beyond itself point beyond itself for its own explanation; in other words would not be the ultimate reality. But mind as we know it is in principle debarred from achieving such internal coherence if only because as I tried to show in an earlier lecture3 it inevitably presupposes an ‘other’ something not itself in its fundamental modes of manifestation as thought and will.
Mind or spirit then I think we must agree cannot be more than a symbol of the perfect unity in difference that characterises that non-contradictory ultimate reality which we may for convenience designate ‘the supreme being of metaphysics’. It is perhaps worth noticing further that the adequacy of spirit as a symbol—preferring now the term ‘spirit’ in order to be free from the cramping intellectualist associations of the term ‘mind’—will naturally be contingent upon the kind of spirit we contemplate. For though spirit is potentially the most comprehensive and coherent of all knowable forms of unity it is evident that spirits as we know them are exemplified at many different stages in the realisation of their potentialities. There are very ‘low-level’ as well as very ‘high-level’ spirits. We must think of spirit at its highest conceivable level of realised potentialities of thought and will if it is to be the most appropriate symbol for the perfect unity of the ‘supreme being’ of metaphysics.
Now a spirit which fully achieved its own ideal would enjoy a thought that is all-comprehensive and completely coherent. It would in that sense be ‘perfect in wisdom’. Again if it fully achieved its own ideal it would have a will in absolute harmony with its ‘perfect wisdom’. In that sense it would be ‘perfect in goodness’. Again if it fully achieved its own ideal there would remain nothing in the universe not subservient to it. In that sense it would be ‘perfect in power’. May we then say that the symbolisation which metaphysics finds legitimate and appropriate for its ‘supreme being’ accords exactly with the theistic symbolisation of God as a Spirit ‘perfect in wisdom goodness and power’?
Not quite. For we must bear in mind that it is not in fact possible to conceive spirit in terms of the complete realisation of its potentialities. If thought and will were fully to achieve their respective ideals so that no element of opposition or otherness remained thought and will would themselves cease to be; and with them would vanish ‘spirit’ in any meaningful sense of that term. Hence we are not able from the standpoint of metaphysics to endorse au pied de la lettre the theistic symbolisation of God as a Spirit perfect in wisdom goodness and power. Strictly speaking this combination of words stands for nothing that we can conceive and which could therefore serve as a symbol. The legitimate symbol for the supreme being of metaphysics cannot be more than a spirit of the highest conceivable wisdom goodness and power.
This divergence however is not serious and indeed is more verbal than real. All that is required to reconcile the religious with the metaphysical viewpoint is a minor revision in the terrninology in which we have so far been content to formulate the faith of supra-rational theism. We need merely substitute ‘highest conceivable’ for ‘perfect’. And a revision of this kind so far as I can see sacrifices nothing that supra-rational theism can have any special concern to retain.
5. So far in considering the extent to which our philosophical theory coincides with and in that sense confirms the faith of theistic religion we have not found it necessary to go beyond the implications of the metaphysical argument deployed in our last lecture. But though the metaphysical argument can thus I think fairly be induced to yield a great deal of confirmation we come now to an extremely important aspect of all theistic religions about which so far as I can see the metaphysical argument per se can tell us nothing. It can tell us nothing about any specific relationship between its supreme being and finite selves. Of a very general relationship it can of course inform us. Like everything else in the universe man is in some sense a ‘manifestation’ of the supreme being a ‘difference’ somehow comprised within its absolute unity. But the ‘somehow’ remains completely unspecified; as indeed it must where the notion of absolute unity has confessedly no positive import save in a symbolic sense. On the other hand the relationship between God and man for religion certainly does not remain completely unspecified; not even where as in supra-rational theism it is fully conceded that the ultimate nature of the Divine unity is an impenetrable mystery.
Now it is just here it seems to me that philosophy can call upon the Moral Argument (as formulated in the closing section of Lecture XVIII) to supplement the metaphysical argument with very great profit and illumination. According to the moral argument we are entitled to regard the moral law or the moral order as an objective reality. We saw however that per se the moral argument does not entitle us to say anything about an ‘imponent’ of the law a ‘moral legislator’. The law's authority for the moral consciousness resides wholly within the law itself. But having now on other grounds arrived at the conception of a supreme being one infinite and eternal who is the ultimate source of all that is we cannot surely do other than take this supreme being to be the source of and thus the imponent of that moral law which all rational beings recognise as unconditionally binding upon them. And from this situation I want now to suggest several important things follow about the relation of finite selves to the supreme being of philosophy which have the effect of bringing that supreme being into much closer accord with the God of religion.
In the first place the supreme being qua author of this moral law which we acknowledge to be unconditionally binding upon us must be accepted as having absolute authority over us. So far as the supreme being's mere power is concerned there is no need to wait for the moral argument to give us assurance. Absolute power is already implied in a being that is the ultimate source of all things in the universe. But that the supreme being stands to finite selves in a relation of authority as a de jure sovereign with rightful claims to the unqualified allegiance of his subjects—that is a development which philosophy can endorse only when the metaphysical argument is supplemented by the moral. But it can I think endorse it then. And thereby it confirms that vital aspect in the theistic faith in virtue of which God is the Lord God the Moral Governor of the world.
In the second place the conjunction of the moral with the metaphysical argument strongly suggests that the relation of man to the supreme being of philosophy is one of creature to creator. When we reflect on the fact that the supreme being is the source both of man's existence and of the moral law binding upon him and when we further appreciate that a moral law is completely meaningless for beings who are not free agents we come to see that man's relation of ‘dependence’ upon the supreme being must be of a very remarkable sort. It must be somehow at once an absolute dependence and yet carry with it a genuine independence. Now there would seem to be only one way in which we can think a relationship of this kind and that is as a relationship of creature to creator where the creator has endowed the creature with a ‘free will’. If a being owes its whole existence to another being and to nothing else besides—and that is of the essence of the creaturely status—it can fairly be said to be in a relation of absolute dependence upon that second being. And if we suppose this created being to have had free will conferred upon it by its creator it can fairly be said to stand in a relation of genuine independence of its creator at the same time as it is absolutely dependent upon him. That the relationship of man to the supreme being of which it is in some sense a manifestation is that of creature to creator the metaphysical argument could give us no inkling whatsoever. But when it is supplemented by the moral argument this becomes I think a reasonable inference. And again thereby our philosophical view is brought into much closer conformity with the religious interpretation of the universe.
And there is yet a third point of interest that follows from this same general situation. For religion the supreme goal of human life is self-surrender to God and communion with Him; and channels conducting to this end are open to man in the religious way of life. Now from the philosophical standpoint as we have so far developed it since the moral law is taken as laid upon us by the supreme Being (symbolised as a spirit of the highest conceivable goodness wisdom and power) devotion to duty to the moral law is at the same time a mode of self-surrender to and even of self-identification with that supreme being; just as dereliction of duty is at the same time a mode of self-assertion against and of self-alienation from him. This may or may not be recognised by the moral agent himself. Very probably it will not be. But the point is that it will be a legitimate philosophic interpretation of the significance of the moral life. Now of course it would be idle to pretend that self-identification with the supreme being through the medium of moral endeavour is tantamount to that actual communion with God as a Living Presence which the religious man believes to be open to those who truly seek it. I shall be referring to that aspect of religious faith later. On the other hand it is not I think extravagant to claim that we have in this further philosophically deducible relation between man and the supreme being a not inconsiderable advance towards the further harmonisation of philosophic doctrine and religious faith.
6. We must pause here however to try to answer an important and difficult question. What is the status from our philosophical standpoint of these propositions that embody our conclusions about the relationship between man and the supreme being of metaphysics? Have the propositions which affirm this supreme being to stand to finite selves in the relation of creator and creature and of moral sovereign to moral subject like the propositions that ascribe spirit and qualities of spirit to this supreme being no more than a symbolic validity?
I am disposed to claim that they have much more than this. Briefly stated the ground for so claiming is that the two principles from whose combined force these propositions are deduced as implications the moral principle as well as the metaphysical principle are principles that are true in their literal significance—not merely ‘symbolically’. The ontological status of the moral order affirmed on the testimony of the moral consciousness is not I think that of a phenomenal symbol of reality. The moral order is itself a reality; and none the less genuinely so because as will appear later a distinction has got to be drawn between the reality it enjoys and ‘ultimate’ reality.
But that this position is not free from difficulties I am well aware. Prima facie there is the strongest possible objection to the contention that both the metaphysical and the moral principle possess literal truth; viz. that on reflection they seem to contradict one another. Let me try to bring out the precise nature of the dilemma that here confronts us.
The moral consciousness if our account of it in the first course be accepted is a mode of experience no less intrinsic to our nature than the theoretic consciousness. Its fundamental deliverance therefore has an equal right with that of the theoretic consciousness to be respected in any constructive philosophical theory. Now the fundamental deliverance of the moral consciousness is that there is an objectively real moral law unconditionally binding upon the human will. The fundamental deliverance of the theoretic consciousness on the other hand is that only what is non-contradictory is real; and we found this to entail when we worked it out that there is but one ultimate reality an infinite and eternal being upon whom all things in the universe in some sense depend. Clearly a major difficulty arises as to how we are to reconcile these two deliverances the moral and the metaphysical with one another. For if as the moral consciousness requires the moral law is accepted as a reality the reality must be accepted of whatever is implied in the reality of moral law; but the moral law's reality plainly implies the reality of moral agents upon whom it is binding and implies accordingly the reality of finite beings living in a temporal order—since only a temporally ordered world can provide a possible milieu for moral endeavour. The problem is how can we consistently maintain the reality of the finite temporal order as thus required by the moral consciousness while we also maintain as required by the theoretic consciousness that the sole ultimate reality is an Infinite and Eternal Being?
Is there any way out from this impasse? I believe that there is. The one possible solution of the problem (or so I have come to think) lies in taking in full earnest the hypothesis of creation. If the relationship of the finite temporal order which the moral life presupposes to the infinite and eternal being is interpreted as that of created being to its creator the finite temporal order will have a reality of its own even though the only ultimate reality is the infinite and eternal Being. For it is implied in the very notion of a genuine ‘creation’ that what is created despite its dependence on its creator is endowed with a relatively independent existence. It is not just (so to speak) a phase or mode of its creator's being. On the hypothesis of creation the world of finite temporal being is not indeed an ultimate reality inasmuch as it depends for its being upon a being beyond itself; but neither is it a mere appearance of the ultimate reality something which on a fuller understanding of it would lose its essential character as finite temporal being. In other words given that the supreme being has created a world of finite beings in time that world really is a world of finite beings in time.
I suggest then that on the hypothesis that the finite temporal order stands to the infinite and eternal as created being to its creator there is no inconsistency in our imputing to it the genuine reality which the moral consciousness posits at the same time as we acknowledge that it falls short of ‘ultimate’ reality inasmuch as it depends upon the infinite and eternal for its own being. And if this be granted the only weighty objection vanishes so far as I can see to the claim that it is no mere ‘symbolic’ validity that attaches to the propositions which assert that the supreme being of metaphysics stands to finite selves in the relation of creator to creature and moral sovereign to moral subject.
7. And now there remains uncorroborated from our philosophical standpoint but one important item in the faith of theism the conviction that God is a Living Presence in the hearts of men—an ‘indwelling Spirit’. Can we say anything about this? Is there any ground for supposing in the light of our constructive philosophical theory that the supreme being deduced therein directly operates on and within the human soul as the religious man believes that God does? One cannot doubt that for most religious faiths this is nothing less than vital. If the average religious man were to be told that he is entitled to all his major beliefs about God except that God is ever directly present to him sustaining guiding admonishing comforting he would surely feel that the very kernel of his religion was being denied him.
Nevertheless I am afraid I am able to make no claim that the correspondence of supra-rationalist philosophy with theism extends to this last article also.
We cannot in the first place get the required philosophical corroboration by way of direct inference from the nature of the supreme being that is the ultimate reality for supra-rationalist metaphysic. For ex hypothesi we do not have on that metaphysic the kind of knowledge of the nature of the supreme being that would enable us to deduce any of its specific manifestations—such as that being's periodic ingressions into finite centres of experience. One may point out in passing however that rationalist systems of metaphysics are in no better case here though for different reasons. For it seems clear enough that a supreme being whose specific manifestations were capable of being deduced as logical implications of its nature must wholly lack that qualitative transcendence of man's finite capacities which is surely inseparable from the God worshipped in religion. Kierkegaard's strictures on ‘the God of the philosophers’ are to my mind unanswerable where his target is the supreme being of any rationalist metaphysic.
In the second place we cannot on this matter I think hope to derive any aid from the ethical supplement to the metaphysical argument. Certain implications of the objective reality of moral law that are of great importance for religion we thought that philosophy could legitimately deduce. But it is no implication of the objective reality of the moral law that the supreme being of metaphysics not only is the ultimate imponent of moral law but also on occasion helps us to obey it. Any suggestion to that effect must come if it comes at all from the religious consciousness itself.
The only kind of corroboration so far as I can see that the supra-rationalist philosophy could offer would be by way of a very general and highly speculative argument. It might conceivably be argued that if the nature of the supreme being is such that it can legitimately be symbolised by the highest spiritual concepts we can frame it is reasonable to expect that this being will have solicitude for the creatures He has brought into existence and that this solicitude will be manifested in some such forms as are indicated by the various terms used by the religious man in testifying to his experience of God's presence. An argument of this sort is not I think wholly negligible; but it does seem to me that a due appreciation of the limitations inherent in our symbolic ‘pictures’ of the nature of the supreme being ought to make us cautious about attaching very much weight to it.
I must frankly say therefore that so far as our constructive philosophic theory is concerned there is precarious support at best for the religious claim to actual communion with God as a Living Presence; though it should be added that nothing in our philosophical theory seems directly to contradict it. The only positive evidence of much significance there can be on the matter must come I think from religious experience itself. There seems no clear reason apart from the testimony of that experience why anyone should suppose that the supreme being makes specific ingressions of this sort into human souls. And this again I take it is one of the things that are meant when it is said that the God of the philosophers is not the God of Abraham Isaac and Jacob.
But acknowledging to that extent an ‘impotence’ inherent in philosophy I by no means admit that this entails as some religious thinkers have eagerly but over-hastily concluded that on the aspect of religious faith with which we are now concerned philosophy has no just claim to say anything at all. For philosophy has a critical no less than a constructive function; and in the exercise of that critical function it has not only a right but a duty to ask ‘Is the evidence from ostensible religious experience for the actual presence of God to man good evidence? Does the experience upon which the religious man bases his belief really warrant that belief?’ If such questions can be intelligibly raised at all to what court can they possibly be taken for adjudication except the court of philosophy?
And it is surely obvious that such questions can be intelligibly raised. There is no question of course that the man who claims that God is directly present to him does (unless he is an impostor) have a certain peculiar sort of experience. But the experience is one thing the interpretation he places on the experience quite another thing. The validity of his interpretation is manifestly open to question. No doubt it was on the basis of a perfectly genuine experience of an ‘inner voice’ that the prophet Samuel adjured Saul ‘Thus saith the Lord… ‘Now go and smite Amalek and utterly destroy all that they have and spare them not; but slay both man and woman infant and suckling ox and sheep camel and ass.”’4 But that Samuel actually heard these words in some sense of the term ‘hearing’ does not entail that they were addressed to him by God. That is Samuel's interpretation of his experience; and as most people would say (I hope) a false interpretation. One does not need to have much acquaintance with the literature pertaining to ‘inner voices’ to be quite sure that at least very many of them are not what they seem to be to the person who experiences them. The content of the message conveyed is usually sufficient evidence in itself that wherever they come from their origin is certainly not divine.
Is it then really possible to doubt that there is a task of the utmost importance to be done here in the critical appraisal of evidence? But the critical appraisal of evidence is everywhere the business of reason: and where the question to which the evidence relates bears as here upon the most ultimate problems of human experience it is the business of philosophy of reason in its philosophical manifestation. I must frankly say that with the best will in the world I can find little excuse for the attitude of those religious thinkers who denounce the entrance of philosophy into this field as an unwarrantable intrusion. The alternative to admitting the ‘intruder’ reason into the field is surely none other than sheer religious anarchy with one man's ‘hunch’ as good as another's. And it is not merely that a man has no right to expect others to be persuaded by an ostensible religious experience which he has had but for whose validity he is prepared to offer no objective reasons. In all earnestness I submit that he has no right to be persuaded of its validity himself. It is only by turning a completely blind eye to the fact—which we all know very well to be a fact—that there are countless cases of ostensible religious experiences that are spurious that any man can be convinced without the most careful and critical reflection of the veridical character of his own ostensible religious experience.
Claims to direct experience of the Divine presence have got to be subjected to appraisal each on its own individual merits. Moreover no criteria are available it seems to me clear that will enable us to attain certainty with respect to any particular case. We have to be content whether we like it or not with probabilities more or less strong one way or the other. At this late date however with the twelfth hour of this course almost about to strike it would be absurd to try to deal systematically with the general question of the criteria of appraisal that are appropriate. I shall confine myself to two brief observations which I feel under some compulsion to make since the respective points to which they draw attention obvious as they are appear to me to be very insufficiently appreciated by many of those (even in high places) who write and talk confidently about the ‘experience’ of God's presence.
The first is that it is no kind of guarantee of the validity of an ostensible experience of God's presence that the experiencing subject is ‘changed’ by it and becomes a dramatically new and better man. It is obvious that illusory beliefs can have enormous potency in transforming behaviour (witness the psychotic) and that the transformation they effect can be most valuable (witness some converts to some ‘false’ religions). That a man's whole way of life can be revitalised even revolutionised by a belief that God has been actually present to him may be an argument for the practical value of such belief. It provides not a scintilla of evidence for its truth-value.
The second observation is that an indispensable tool in the appraisal of evidence here is an informed understanding of the vagaries of the human mind as so far revealed and in process of being further revealed by the science of psychology; and in particular by that branch of it known as ‘abnormal psychology’. The defenders of religious experience are apt to adopt a rather disparaging attitude towards modern psychology and modern psychologists. This seems to me unwise. I should be the last to deny that too many practitioners of modern psychology have invited disrespect for their science by an undiscriminatingly clinical approach to human behaviour; often producing astonishing psycho-analytic explanations for actions that are perfectly intelligible in the light of principles that have been familiar and well-authenticated since the very dawn of psychology. But there is nothing unusual in the spectacle of scientific pioneers intoxicated by the excitement of their discoveries and seeking to apply them beyond all reasonable limits. We should not allow the irritation it provokes to blind us to the fact that any competent enquirer will find in modern psychology not only much that is doubtful and a certain amount that seems downright silly but also a body of well-authenticated novel and important information about the human mind that has the most obvious relevance to some of the central phenomena in ostensible religious experience.
8. We have now reached the end of our journey. What then is our final and formal answer to our fundamental question ‘Is religion true’?
It is that granted that religion finds its proper theoretic expression in theism and that this theism must be interpreted in supra-rational not rational terms there is good philosophic corroboration for all the major articles of the theistic creed save one. I have contended that objective philosophical thinking in which straight metaphysical argument is supplemented by reflections upon the implications of man's moral consciousness leads independently to belief in an infinite and eternal being who is the sole ultimate reality the creator of the finite temporal world and the source of the moral law which has absolute authority over man's conduct in that world; a being who moreover though he transcends in his nature all human powers of conception is yet legitimately symbolised as a spirit endowed with the highest conceivable goodness wisdom and power.
As regards the one remaining article of the theistic creed however constructive philosophy can in my opinion neither sustain nor refute the general principle of specific Divine manifestations in human lives and critical philosophy can do no more than assess rather roughly the probabilities one way or the other in the case of individual claims. This will seem to many a somewhat disappointing note on which to close; for I am under no illusions concerning the great importance that most religious minds attach to the conviction of God's ‘Living Presence’. Like I am afraid a number of other things that I have been obliged to say in the course of these addresses this part of my conclusion can scarcely fail to be unpalatable to many with whom I should be glad if it were possible to find myself in agreement. But the duty of a Gifford Lecturer as I understand it is not to be a committed defender of any faith but to be a critical enquirer after the truth—following the wind of the argument whithersoever it may lead. The wind of the argument has driven the present lecturer into waters at times no less turbulent than deep; waters all but unnavigable perhaps even for a pilot of far superior skill. It may well be and many will not doubt that the voyage has ended in shipwreck. Even so I should still take a little comfort from my unshakable belief that where the quest is for truth it is infinitely better to set sail and sink than never to set sail at all.
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